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Starry, starry 'first light' from NASA's WISE mission

The new Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer kicks off its mission to scan and capture a view of the entire sky with a look at the constellation Carina.

WISE view of constellation Carina
This very first image from the WISE space telescope shows 3,000 stars, more or less, in the constellation Carina. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Just about everybody gets excited about the first picture from a new camera, and NASA is no exception to the rule.

In this case, the "first light" image came from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, aka WISE, which NASA sent into space last month. Just last week, the agency popped off the space telescope's "lens cap," a cover that shielded the optical gear from the travails of lift-off and from the spacecraft's own heat.

WISE does like things chilly, says NASA--really, really chilly:

To sense the infrared glow of stars and galaxies, the WISE spacecraft cannot give off any detectable infrared light of its own. This is accomplished by chilling the telescope and detectors to ultra-cold temperatures. The coldest of WISE's detectors will operate at less than 8 Kelvin, or minus 445 degrees Fahrenheit.

Brr. But the images that come from the 9-foot-tall, 1,400-pound WISE spacecraft will no doubt warm the hearts of NASA's mission planners and legions of astronomers as the telescope scans the firmament for hidden objects, ranging from asteroids to galaxies. In orbit around Earth, WISE will take motion-corrected infrared images every 11 seconds, a rate that the space agency says will result in millions of images of the sky.

On Wednesday, NASA released the very first image, taken shortly after the cover was jettisoned and WISE got its initial glimpse of the heavens--in this case, staring at a fixed portion of the sky as NASA engineers calibrated the spacecraft's pointing system. The image shows a section of the constellation Carina, near the Milky Way, that includes some 3,000 stars, give or take a few. It's a patch of the sky about three times bigger than a full moon, NASA says.

The 8-second exposure shows infrared light from three of WISE's four wavelength bands--blue, green and red, which, according to NASA, correspond to 3.4, 4.6, and 12 microns, respectively.

Over time, data from WISE will be used in the creation of navigation charts for other missions, including those of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. Alas, WISE's moment of glory won't last long--the frozen hydrogen that keeps the instruments at those necessary ultra-cold temperatures is expected to evaporate by about October.

The first survey of the sky by WISE will take about six months, followed by a second scan, of just half the sky, over three months.

NASA will be releasing selected images to the public starting in February. It expects to release preliminary survey images in April 2011, and to have a final atlas and catalog ready by March 2012.

And those images should be dandies. WISE has a resolution of 4 million pixels, spread about equally over the system's four detectors. The last time an infrared survey of the sky took place, in 1983, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) taking the pictures could muster only 62 pixels, period.

See also:
• Photos: Hubble's newest visions of space